The Perfect Formula for Holiday Reading
Here’s your not-so-basic system for finding the best holiday reads
The choosing of holiday reading is not a matter to be taken lightly. For me, a good book is as intrinsic to holiday enjoyment as a beautiful view or a great balcony. That’s largely because reading is one of the only things that makes me truly turn off and relax. From my sun lounger, I wallow greedily in paper, the next book always just at the edge of my vision. I relish those precious hours of page turning, watching the book split open and reveal itself like a neatly sliced apple as I pass a quarter, half, three quarters.
As such, the selection process begins at least eight weeks before. And when I say process, I mean process. No messing around. I have five clear stages and shall pepper each with book recommendations so as to make this article vaguely useful.
This stage is sort of like trying to pick a film to watch and casting around in your mind for trailers that looked good last time you were at the cinema. You may even have purchased and set aside books in anticipation of the occasion.
Solid stage 1 examples include The Secret History by Donna Tart ( even better than The Goldfinch in my opinion) and Mountain Shadow by Gregory David Roberts (how could the follow up to Shantaram not be brilliant? Spoiler: It was, but not as brilliant).
Now is also the time to dredge up those authors you’ve loved and see what else they’ve written. I have my mum to thank for the discovery of Sarah Waters (The Paying Guests is a must read) and on discovery she’s written a lot more; The Fingersmith went straight onto the holiday pile. It was only after the third title of hers I discovered I obviously had a penchant for lesbian literature, clearly I’m farther along the sliding scale than I thought! No matter.
That’s stage 1 complete. Three books in the pile.
This is where I really reap the rewards of my Amazon Prime account (or should I say my husband’s Amazon Prime account). From this point up until the plane takes off from Heathrow, a slow, steady trickle of brown paper packages are deposited through our letterbox. I overuse the ‘Customers who bought this item also bought…’ functionality on Amazon, trying out all my favourite authors and titles. Unfortunately, those ‘customers’ are not always to be trusted. But we’ll cover that shortly in stage 3.
This is where I discovered The Girls by Emma Cline. A story including hippies, horrifying crimes and recounting of familiar teenageisms, all wrapped up in the intrigue of being 27 year-old Cline’s debut novel. Excellent holiday fodder.
This is also the stage at which my husband starts to look concerned. The pile teeters in the corner of the living room, always just in his peripheral vision. Creeping up by a few hundred pages every week, he starts making subtle comments about baggage allowance and the many benefits of the Kindle. But it’s a ‘joint’ selection, I say, cunningly shifting half the responsibility onto him. Eventually, I force him into choosing one.
Stage two complete. That’s six books in the pile.
This is a less glamorous but essential phase. Let me give an example. It all stemmed from my search for a title to rival I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes (brilliant and terrifying, particularly in the current climate). Anyway, up popped Nomad by James Swallow. It immediately shot to #1 on my pile. Two weeks before we went away, my sister came round and professed it was so bad she couldn’t finish it. Essential vetting in action. Suddenly, my frontrunner was no more. Lucky I had so many back ups.
However, good things do happen in stage 3. In culling one book, my sister bestowed upon me another – The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (all the rage what with the current televisation of The Handmaid’s Tale) and really very good.
I trust my sister’s literary taste implicitly. In fact I believe my appreciation of a good solid holiday read came from my dad. Some of my fondest memories are walking holidays in The Lake District or France (we didn’t believe in beaches) all lined up on a rock in our walking boots with a crusty baguette and a lump of edam to fortify us, just reading our books. And as for dad, he’d be out on the balcony with his book until the last possible moment, us girls still fussing over suitcases and final toilet trips.
As such, he has become something of an oracle when it comes to book recommendations. His best recommendation to date (and the book you must take on your next holiday if you haven’t read it) is Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe (Wall Street, a hit and run, a web of lies waiting to implode. Dreamy.)
Of course vetting can also be more shallow. An unsatisfactory specimen may arrive from Amazon with overly large type (my bug bear) or flimsy pages which just won’t do for a holiday read.
Stage three complete. We’ve lost one book but gained two, so that’s seven in the pile.
We’ve all been there. You’re walking through a train station and before you know it you’re in WHSmith sweeping up numbers one to five on the holiday bestsellers shelf and running for the hills (via the checkout, of course). It’s that false reassurance that if others are buying these books so surely they can’t be awful? Oh, how false that is.
No matter how prepared I am, I always panic buy at least one book for the holiday.
My husband actually ended up selecting one of my panic buys from the pile on our last holiday and it was indeed a truly terrible book. On the upside, it caused much hilarity, as from time to time he’d quietly snigger from his lounger or quote aloud a particularly offensive sentence or two. So it was entertaining at the very least.
Let me emphasise that these books are safety nets, and safety nets only. Do not rely on them. I struck lucky with The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena, which is an excellent title in this category. Concise, gripping and non offensive.
Stage four complete. We have 9 books in the pile.
Vital but tricky; the final stage. If it was up to me, I’d take them all. But sadly, I have the same attitude to clothes, make up and hair products when it comes to holidays.
Nine must be reduced to four. And the below, I believe, is the perfect formula for a week’s holiday.
1. The chunky, reliable thriller. 500+ pages, an author of excellent repute or recommended by someone trustworthy. For my last holiday, it was The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood.
2. The novel of intrigue. Middle sized so it’s easily digestible after the inevitable emotional rollercoaster of the first. It’s more of a risk, so you’re excited – this time for me it was The Girls by Emma Cline
3. The light and breezy one (read: trashy). But check the reviews first. For me, this was The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena. Even if it turns out to be awful you’re sure to enjoy it at some level if the above fail you or you’re just speeding through the books faster than you imagined.
4. The non-fiction you were possibly already reading. I quite like to mix it up with a non-fiction just to get my head back in the game before heading back to the real world. This time it was The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life that Matters by Emily Esfahani Smith.
So there you have it. Just a simple 5 stage process and about three hundred books in the corner of the living room. Nothing to it, really.